By its very nature the Roman Empire was a multicultural place. At its height its territory stretched from north-west Europe, to North Africa and into the Near East and after 43 CE (Christian Era) this began to include Britain. People from a wide variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds came under Roman rule. People also moved around the empire too through trade or military movements or people being relocated, sometimes against their will.
By the 200s CE there is evidence for people of African origins living in Roman Britain. The skeleton of a young woman was found at Beachy Head and modern archaeological techniques have been able to tell us a lot about who she was. The woman lived around 200-250 CE, was from a Roman area in the south-east of England, had died in her early twenties and had sub-Saharan African ancestry. Not only is she the first black Briton known to us, her discovery suggests that people from beyond the North African Roman border were also present in Britain at this time.
In 1901 a skeleton was discovered in York which would later be called the “Ivory Bangle Lady”. She was eventually dated to having lived in the second half of the 4th century CE. She was buried in a stone coffin and was found with ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants and other expensive possessions. This strongly suggests that she was a woman of wealth and status within Roman York. Analysis showed she had spent her early years in a warmer climate whilst her skull shape suggested she had North African ancestry.
The analysis of other Roman Britons has revealed other individuals with African ancestry too across Roman Britain. In a graveyard of 83 Romans 6 were discovered to be of African descent and two of them were born in Britain (how amazing is science being able to tell us all this!)
These examples help to illustrate a number of things; that black people were living and being born in Roman Britain, that there is some suggestion that they were of duel heritage, suggesting mixed relationships and that you can forget any assumption that black people were all slaves in the Roman world!
There were people from all over the empire in the Roman army too. There is an inscription from a fort along the western edge of Hadrian’s wall and a list of roman dignitaries which both refer to a unit of “Aurelian Moors”, soldiers from the Roman province of Mauretania in North Africa, now Morocco, who had garrisoned the fort in the 3rd century. The unit was named after Emperor Marcus Aurelius (you may remember he was the old emperor depicted in the film Gladiator) and probably consisted of around 500 men. I bet they found it a bit nippy!
Talking about Hadrian’s wall, actually quite a lot of what you see today was rebuilt by the emperor Septimius Severus when he was in Britain trying to subdue those living in the north. He strengthened Hadrian’s Wall and reoccupied the Antonine Wall (north of Hadrian’s Wall) and invaded Caledonia (Scotland). The war continued until 210 when Severus became ill and died in York in 211. Why are we suddenly talking about an emperor of Roman I hear you say. Well Severus was African, although we don’t know exactly what ethnicity he was or what skin colour he had but depictions of him suggest he wasn’t white. As I mentioned earlier people moved around the empire for a variety of reasons.
There are plenty of other sources which mention people from Africa in the Roman world. For example an ancient document says that at Cerne in the Mediterranean there were many Ethiopians, who traded in ivory, deer, leopards, wine, perfumes, Egyptian stones, and ceramics from Athens. The Roman often mention where people are from but less often talk about skin colour.
This does bring us to something that does seem to be interesting and unique about the Roman world. There is no doubt that slavery was extremely common in the Roman period. It is believed that 1 in 5 people in the Roman Empire were slaves and 1 in 3 in Italy itself. Slavery was an integral part of how Rome worked and slaves were used in all areas of life from agriculture, mines, industrial activities and producing goods, to household slaves and even government administrators, scribes and teachers. Some slaves could command influence and importance, but they were not free.
One thing that does not seem to impact on whether you might find yourself as a slave or not, is the colour of your skin. People may find themselves sold as slaves after being captured during conquest and war, they may have been traded or born into slavery. Your experience as a slave could vary greatly too, certainly some slaves had a comfortable life and others lived appalling brutal existences and died quickly, but the colour of your skin did not determine how likely you were to end up in slavery or your status as a slave.
It is possible that a slave belonging to the orator and politician Cicero was black. Marcus Tullius Tiro was given his freedom for good service. He was a friend to Cicero and his secretary, keeping Cicero’s notes he used the first form of shorthand.
When the BBC posted a video for school children about a Roman family and the father had dark skin, a storm on social media began as people accused the BBC of ‘blackwashing history’
Academic Mary Beard defended the video and argued that recent evidence suggests that Roman Britain was far more diverse than had previously been believed. She even provided a real-life person upon who the man could be based – Quietus Lollius Urbicus, from Africa was a governor of Roman Britain.
I wonder how many of those people from across the Roman world remained in Britain after Roman Britain ended. Some of them may have been in Britain for generations and therefore would have been born as Britons and lived here all their lives.